When most people think of theft, criminal offenses come to mind – shoplifting, forgery, robbery and the like. However, another kind of theft is even more prevalent: wage theft. It happens more often than people realize. The victims – many of whom are minimum or low-wage workers struggling to make ends meet – are numerous. Many others are high earning professionals. While some states are indeed taking criminal action against wage theft, much more often employers are not held accountable.

How does it happen?

Wage theft happens when employers don’t pay their workers what they’re entitled to, whether under a contract or by law. It can take many forms, including:

  • Stealing tips or illegally counting them toward minimum wage
  • Shorting time cards
  • Misclassifying employees as independent contractors or as exempt salaried employees to avoid paying overtime
  • Requiring employees to work, answer electronic communications, or attend meetings “off the clock” (unpaid time)
  • Commission shorting or failure to pay agreed-upon bonuses or raises
  • Failing to pay 1 ½ times regular pay for work over 40 hours in a workweek
  • Delaying payroll or failing to pay altogether
  • Illegal rounding of worked time to reduce pay
  • Requiring workers to spend unpaid pre or post-shift time to prepare or wind down from work

Why it’s happening

Wage theft means more profit for employers. According to some estimates, more than 20 percent of low-wage hourly employees are victims of wage theft. Less often studied is wage theft from professional and executive employees.

Women and people of color are more likely to be shorted on their paychecks, but anyone can be a victim. And some industries are worse than others. Wage theft is rampant in restaurants and hospitality jobs, construction work, factory jobs, transportation and domestic work, to name a few.

What employees can do about it

Now more than ever, workers need the legal protections of state and federal employment law. Those laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for speaking out against illegal or wrongful labor practices, if such complaints are worded sufficiently to invoke the legal protections. Additionally, with the help of a knowledgeable employment attorney, workers can pursue legal action to recover the wages they’re owed, often including obtaining liquidated (double) damages and attorneys’ fees.